From "Smogtown" to a model for the world?

The smell of smog makes me nostalgic. My Proustian madeleine moment is walking down the jet stairs to the tarmac at the Burbank airport on a warm day. That particular whiff of ozone and automobile exhaust combined with vaguely sweet overtones of citrus, chaparral, and hot asphalt gets me every time. I'm a kid again in the 1960s or 1970s, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena, when you couldn't see the San Gabriel Mountains from Vroman's Bookstore, which my grandfather owned and ran with his cousins.

Peyri Herrera.jpgA lot has changed since then. Being able to see the mountains most days of the year is one of the most visible counter-narratives to the lamentations about California's demise that every generation seems to relish here. Not to mention breathing the air.

Nobody misses the smog. But even though it is not as visible--or smelly--most days, we still have too much air pollution, regularly giving LA some of the worst air quality in the nation. But California's success in dramatically cleaning the air over LA led the way to national efforts and is now a signal to the world--particularly cities in South and East Asia regularly suffering some of the most dire air quality on the planet--that there is hope and a path forward.

That hope regularly brings Chinese officials to Los Angeles to learn the lessons of this transformation. It's also the message at the center of "Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability," a new report by 50 researchers from across the University of California system, on which I was senior editor. Cleaning up the air--removing what scientists call the "short lived climate pollutants" that make up soot and smog--is the first major step in reducing global warming. It has immediate health benefits for people. And it buys us some time to work on reducing and eventually flat-lining long-term climate pollution from carbon dioxide, which we can't see or smell, but which persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Can LA be a model for the world? I like to think so, or hope so, anyway. So does Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles and The People's Republic of Chemicals, both written with co-author William J. Kelly. Smogtown has just been published in paperback with a new postscript that makes that argument, too.

"It's a tantalizing idea, isn't it?" Jacobs responded when I asked him what he thinks of California as an example. It's true, he said, that Chinese officials have been visiting California for years to learn how to monitor and reduce air pollution. In some cases they've implemented solutions in a few years that took California several decades.

But Jacobs offers some important caveats. Most of LA's smog came from cars, but some of it came from manufacturing that has gone overseas in recent decades. "Be careful when you ship something off to another country: you're exporting pollution," he said. "We allowed corporations to go and set up in cheaper more authoritarian places," he added. "They don't have to build in costs for pollution control. But the discount you're getting is at somebody else's expense."

As much as 20 percent of China's pollution is caused by exports to the United States, Jacobs said. Some of that pollution drifts back over the West Coast on the prevailing winds, and the carbon dioxide China pumps into the atmosphere adds to global warming.

Jacobs also said that while Chinese officials--and officials from other governments as well--are often eager to learn about scientific and technological solutions, they're not as quick to embrace another element of California's success: the ability of citizens to get access to information and to sue the government to take action. Some technocrats here have sometimes publicly wished that they could have the power of authorities in China just for a day.

But if the history of Smogtown is any guide, the power of the people is key to success. Public protests, environmental organizers, nonprofit lawyers, investigative scientists, crusading journalists, dedicated public officials, and democratically elected leaders all contributed to enacting laws and policies that have steadily ratcheted down pollution levels through regulations, taxes, and incentives.

Perversely, that success now leaves Jacobs worried about his hometown, too. "My biggest fear is public complacency," he said. We've paid our way out of our biggest problems, and we no longer "have an active, zesty engagement," he said. Aside from the hardcore activists and Prius drivers, "I'm not convinced Californians are dynamite environmentalists. People hate smog but they love their cars more. It's a passive environmentalism," he said.

"We've improved technology. We haven't changed the culture," Jacobs concluded. "We're a stabilized pollution island."

To really become a model for the world, it turns out, Los Angeles may need to relearn its own history. Rereading Smogtown is a good start.

For more on "Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability," see my article in The Conversation and Q&A here. Want to see air quality in LA and around the world in real time? Check out the World Air Quality Index. And there's an app for that here in LA and around the United States: Air4U.

Photo by Peyri Herrera.

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